By ZACHARY COILE
San Francisco Chronicle
October 21, 2008
It's a striking argument for Republicans, who have held all the levers of federal power for most of the past eight years. While even GOP leaders admit the Republican brand has been tarnished during President Bush's two terms, they believe they can convince voters that total Democratic control would be worse, leading to higher taxes and an expansion of government.
In his new campaign stump speech, Arizona Sen. John McCain warned Monday that Democrat Barack Obama is "measuring the drapes and planning, with Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi and Sen. (Harry) Reid, to raise taxes, increase spending and concede defeat in Iraq."
The warning is part of a new campaign to put Obama on the defensive. McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, are accusing the Democratic nominee of pushing "socialist" tax policies.
Democrats see it as a scare tactic to distract voters from the nation's anemic economy and President Bush's historically low job-approval ratings. They believe that concerns over one-party control won't register in an election in which voters want change.
"In 2006, Republicans tried these same cheap political attacks," said Brendan Daly, Pelosi's communications director, referring to the election in which Democrats won back control of the House and Senate. "They didn't work then, and they won't work now."
Republicans have been e-mailing a Wall Street Journal editorial from last week warning that Democrats are on the cusp of an election sweep that could give them the White House, a filibuster-proof Senate and their biggest majority in Congress since 1965. The editorial cautioned that a "liberal supermajority" could increase regulations on businesses, give more power to unions, and steer the country toward a government-run health care system.
Congressional Republicans used a similar tactic in 1996, when their party's presidential nominee, Sen. Bob Dole, was heading for defeat and the GOP was worried about heavy losses in Congress. GOP leaders ran an ad featuring a fortuneteller looking into a crystal ball filled with images of chaos and conflict. An announcer said, "Remember the last time Democrats ran everything? The largest tax increase in history. Government-run health care. More wasteful spending. Who wants that again?"
Conservative columnists such as George Will and John Fund have urged the McCain campaign to use the argument that the Arizona senator could act as a check on a resurgent Democratic Congress. Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, trotted out the idea in an Oct. 12 interview on Fox News Sunday.
"Do we really believe that the American public is going to feel safe by having both the head of the Congress and the head of the White House from the same party that has had so many challenges with the way they've run Washington over the last couple of years?" Davis asked.
John Pitney, Jr., a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College in California, said the argument can be effective with voters who believe divided government yields more moderate policies, such as the welfare reform plan approved by Clinton and a GOP Congress.
"Most people don't vote on the basis of divided versus unified control of government, but a sizable fraction of the electorate takes it into account," Pitney said. "For 1 (percent) or 2 percent (of voters) it could be decisive. In a close election, that could make a difference."
Morris Fiorina, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and Stanford University political science professor who has written extensively about divided government, pointed to a recent Associated Press poll that found that one-fifth of voters said they would prefer a White House and Congress led by opposing parties.
"I think the argument is strengthened by the disaster of the past six years," he said. "Having seen what unified Republican control brought us, some people may be concerned about what would happen under unified Democratic control."
But Fiorina said it could be too late for the argument to have much effect. "It's the right move, but he's too far behind for it to work," he said.
Pelosi, asked about the prospect of all-Democratic control on "The Charlie Rose Show" last week, said Congress will have to work across party lines to get big initiatives passed, regardless of whether McCain or Obama occupies the White House.
"I believe that we shouldn't have dominance for a long period of time of one party," she said. "We are at least a two-party system, and many of the issues that we're dealing with, and we'll get to some bigger ones like Social Security, Medicare, health care for all Americans ... they have to be done in a bipartisan way."
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